Curators Part 2
Instinctively I am against the notion of literary curators. To my mind such individuals just have too much centrality of power. Even if our ‘indie’ sector were picked up and patronised by a go-ahead visionary, I would still feel uncomfortable.
In the Art World, the example of the Young British Artists were wholly buttressed by Charles Saatchi. Investor, patron and curator of the Saatchi Gallery where so much of the work ended up. Surely the roles of curator and patron ought to have some separation? Otherwise you are wholly reliant on whether the individual is a benign dictator or a tyrant. When you are as powerful as Saatchi, neither makes much difference.
In theatre, Kenneth Tynan was the pre-eminent critic and supporter of the exciting plays of the 1960s and yet did he not surrender any claim to neutrality by writing for and producing “Oh Calcutta”? At one stroke he is a stakeholder in the success of an individual production. My former experience of theatre literary managers was that most were themselves playwrights, who thereby guaranteed themselves productions of their own plays, while giving platforms to their playwright mates for their works. Not quite a close shop, or a guild of theatre writers, but not far short.
In literature, the agent-publisher nexus means that there seems to be few such leg-up networks in place. However, the you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours occurs within reviews. Many writers, partly for economic reasons, are also reviewers. They review their mates’ books among others. Publishers aren’t daft and seek out those personal contacts their writer has in order to try and target a favourable review. It has always been thus and I have no real opinion on the ethics of it. However, it’s when reviewers raise their heads to pontificate across the whole of literary trends, that their dual role as writer slants their view. This is when I have a problem with them being writers and critics. In Harpers Ben Marcus rebuts Jonathan Franzen for an assault on experimental fiction’s threat to all literature by alienating readers from the pleasure of reading. Franzen is a very important writer, a strategic writer who people sit up and take notice of what he says. So when he wields such clout to issue fatwas against certain types of literature, it makes me very uncomfortable that he should be such a mouthpiece for the reading world as a whole. He is naturally defending his corner of literature, but only by excluding others that do not fit in with his own vision. I don’t know what the answer to this is. Writers will always air views about literature and so they should. But if they are also seen as curators in some way, that is not healthy. I think the Americans call it a separation of powers.